These are the famous opening words of a treatise which, from the French Revolutionary Terror of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, has been interpreted as a blueprint for totalitarianism. But in The Social Contract Rousseau (1712-78) was at pains to stress the connection between liberty and law, freedom and justice. Arguing that the ruler is the people’s agent, not its master, he claimed that laws derived from the people’s General Will. Yet in preaching subservience to the impersonal state he came close to defining freedom as the recognition of necessity.
I’m no expert but from previous brief sojourns into the world of social political writing – in the form of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – Rousseau diverges from both of his English counterparts on the subject with his own model on the titular social contract.
As a classic work of political philosophy that still has merit for the reader today, I found this treatise to be a fascinating and complex work, both making a lot of sense but also coming across with a lot of naivety as well, perhaps the latter is due to hindsight or just that now we have a better understanding of global history.
Unsurprisingly for a French writer, this is a book based squarely in the corner of Republicanism and what the ideal state would be like with the freedom for all within a social and legislative structure. The collectivism of the general will above the individual needs and desires would see every person participate in chosen law and civic organisation which would ultimately make them free.
There are many instances in which the book pushed for seismic events that changed the world not long after Rousseau’s death, the abolition of slavery and the French Revolution have been logical steps upon his path. Interestingly he didn’t advocate equal right or even citizenship for women, thinking them inferior to men, it seems to be truly free each sex must play their part as chosen by man, an inherent flaw by today’s standards and one that is certainly of its time and deserves to stay there.
The will of the people is often wrong or easily led and whilst this book can seem like a call to a more Athenian style democracy, there are also elements that hint of a more totalitarian nature. Giving up all rights to the state which acts for the good of the people is one thing bit when debate and common sense get lost, the use of propaganda to sway public consensus leads to subjugation of all but the few and hate of certain races or groups. To see these devastating effects one needs only look around the world today or back to recent history for plenty (too many) of examples.
There are pages of solid, logical ideas here but then there are also parts where Rousseau’s ideas fall flat, it’s a contradictory mix but makes for a compelling read. Although the concepts for the 21st century are – as to be expected – dated, it is a most unequivocally thought-provoking read that still has plenty of merit today, for all those who have any interest in the Enlightenment or political philosophy in general. As a casual reader and habitual dabbler in all things bookish, I appreciated it for the changes it helped inspire and the place it holds as a defining historical text.